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Can murder be sexy? It can if you have Bob Fosse choreograph it in the touring production of 'Chicago'

By Adrienne Martini

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  If a Broadway musical could be a car, Chicago wouldn't be your father's Oldsmobile. Instead, it would be a sleek, hot, cherry Ferrari, pumped full of gas and ready to burn. No staid luxury vehicles--like the "now-and-forever" Cats, Les Miserables, or Lion King--should even be allowed in the same garage, much less cruisin' the same Great White Way. Chicago would fit right into the sleazy pre-Giuliani Times Square, rather than the post-Disney Broadway where it currently runs.

Despite the squeaky-clean surroundings, Chicago is a musical that simply drips with sex and scandal--as well as, incidentally, beautiful choreography by the late Bob Fosse and jazzy compositions by legends John Kander and Fred Ebb. Chicago is not flash over substance, rather it is the perfect merger of the two.

Largely, this can be credited to the source material. Maurine Watkins was a Chicago Tribune reporter who in 1924 began writing columns about women who kill in a crime of passion, which became the basis of a play, and then (20 years later) a movie starring Ginger Rogers. Both were successful, proving that the American public has always had a taste for blood and corruption, even before the days of Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones.

Bob Fosse, of course, always knew sellable sex when he saw it--for proof, rent All That Jazz, the auto-biopic he directed about himself shortly before his death. If you've seen it, call to mind the "Fly Me" scene, in which lithe dancers artistically writhe all over each other; that is, loosely, a good example of his work for Chicago. But, besides explicit sensuality, other Fosse trademarks turn up as well in his version, from his angular morphing of classical moves to his ubiquitous jazz hands. Chicago is the condensation of the best of Fosse's work, and it dazzles.

Actor Tracy Shayne, who is playing Roxie on this road tour, says this about dancing in Fosse's creation: "I wouldn't say [Fosse] is more difficult, I would say, in a way, more rewarding. It is difficult, but it's so exciting to do. Just as you feel watching it, you feel the same doing it. It's very sensual, provocative, sexy--all of those things but also very elegant and sophisticated and very specific."

Shayne is no stranger to Fosse's work; she has also been featured in a musical review of his choreography called, naturally enough, Fosse. But she has other big Broadway credits as well, like Christine in Phantom of the Opera and Bebe in A Chorus Line. "It's fun," she says of giving up her stationary life in New York and joining a road company. "It's kind of this gypsy-like existence on the road. It mirrors the show in a way; it's great for this show."

Life on the road does have its challenges; first and foremost could be fitting into skin-tight costumes that are largely constructed of black mesh, black satin, and black leather.

"The costumes are very revealing," Shayne says with a laugh. "Well, doing the show keeps you pretty much in shape but we all usually work out at a gym. We find a gym in every city that we're going to--and we work out, some more than others. I have to say that the guys really work out--I mean, they're crazy. The girls are a little bit more laid-back. We do more yoga.

"It's a very physical show," she adds. "Some of the roles in the show are a little bit more physically demanding than others. My role--I'm pretty lucky. I don't think I'm going to have any problems. But every once in a while, you'll wake up in the morning and all of a sudden you'll have a pulled muscle and you'll have no idea how it happened. We try to go to chiropractors and massage therapists in every city that we're in."

Shayne's role also forces her to use her acting training. Roxie is one of the lead murderers, the one who has been sent to jail for killing her lover for breaking up with her. Shortly after the murder, Roxie calls her husband and convinces him to take the fall for her, which doesn't work out as she had planned. Roxie transforms this set-back into stardom, after Ms. Watkins prints her story. Shayne enjoys playing this callow, manipulative, yet lovable, scamp.

"The interesting thing about Roxie from my point of view," she says, "is her ability to run the gamut of emotions in less than a minute. Roxie is coy, she's a little girl, she's a vamp, she's manipulative--she's everything in a split second. And I love that about her. I get to play it every night. Roxie has quite a temper, like a little kid.

"In fact, this role is a dream role. Roles like this don't come along very often for women in musical theater. For the last 25 years, I guess, I've been doing period pieces where I've been playing a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old. I'm a grown woman! I'm ready."

The show, while it does offer great roles for women, also speaks to our culture's knack for glamorizing people who kill. It's a commentary of sorts on the media hoopla surrounding O.J. Simpson or, locally, the Lillelid family's killers. But Chicago is more than a dry treatise on our values, it is entertainment at its most engaging.

"It moves at a very fast pace; it's very exciting," Shayne says. "It's an adult musical so even if you don't feel like following the plot or you don't really want to think, you just want to sit and be entertained, you're going to have a great time. The bodies are just incredibly gorgeous onstage. There's a really interesting plot if you do want to follow it, because there are serious overtones, like society's ability to glorify killers. That's what the story is about, really."

As Shayne points out, even though some lofty themes are tossed about onstage, the visual experience is also a treat, designed around Fosse's use of scantily-clad, beautifully-proportioned bodies. And she had no reservations about joining up for this journey to old Chicago.

"Once you allow yourself to get into doing the play, you forget about all that and you just really do the play. It's so much fun," she says. "I had no hesitation at all. I couldn't wait. And I still feel that way. I can't wait to get onstage every night."

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